This piece was originally published on the FINCA website. I just felt I had to share it here as well!
I got the sad news yesterday, via Twitter, that one of the people I most admired in this world, Naima, had passed away. The tweet was from Basha, who is married to one of Naima’s daughters (and who had accompanied Naima to the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala, Uganda, to meet with me several years ago, an encounter which led to my decision to employ Naima as our first Ambassador in that country.
Naima’s qualifications for the job were impeccable. She was one of our most successful clients ever, having clawed her way out of severe poverty over the course of a decade during the 90s, powered by a series of FINCA loans. She had so impressed our staff that, when our other, slightly more famous Ambassador of Hope, Natalie Portman, visited Uganda in 2004, they put her forth as someone Natalie had to meet.
Natalie and I met with Naimi on a hot morning in Jinja, Uganda, a town situated at the source of the Nile, complete with a statue of Speke, the Brit explorer who claimed to have “discovered” the place where Ugandans had been living since time immemorial. Naima took us to the back of her restaurant, which she ran with the help of her four daughters, and, while a journalist from Reuters looked on, told us her story:
“I was born in the Iganga District of Uganda in 1958. In my family, girls were not permitted to have an education, but my brother secretly taught me to read and right. I was married at the age of 13, and born my first child, a daughter, at age 15. I had five more daughters, which displeased my husband, who wanted sons, and so he divorced me. We were living in Mombassa, Kenya, at the time, and I moved then back to Uganda, where I married for the second time. My second husband died when I was 33, leaving me to care for my eight children. We lived in a one-room dwelling, and I supported my family by cleaning people’s houses, who in return allowed me to take their table scraps and wash my family’s cloths with their used dish water. Many days, we had no food at all.
In 1996, a friend of mine told me about an organization named FINCA that made loans to poor women so they could start businesses and support themselves and their families. She took me to a meeting of her village bank, where I was introduced to the other women. But the women decided that I was too poor to join their village bank, and would not be able to repay the loan, meaning they would have to repay for me. I got down on my knees and begged them to accept me. Four of the women took pity on me, and said they would pay for me if I failed to repay the loan. In this way, I was accepted.
The first loan I received was 50,000 shillings (US$ 40). I didn’t know what to do with so much money. My four friends in the village bank invited me to go with them to a nearby village where they was a good crop of tomatoes that would could buy and bring back to Jinja for reselling in the market. The plan worked fine, but by the time we returned to Jinja, the market was closed.
That night, I slept with the tomatoes. The next morning, I sold them all at a good profit. After years of hard work, aided by increasingly larger loans, I eventually saved enough money to buy this restaurant. And now, the best news of all, I have bought a plot of land, in town, and am building my own home.”
Naima related all this, quietly, with a transcendent dignity born of a life of struggle and setbacks, none of which stopped her and, on the contrary, fueled her determination. At the conclusion of Naima’s narrative, the Reuter’s journalist asked Natalie what she thought of all she had heard. Natalie, in tears, shook her head and said “I don’t have problems.”
Years later, in preparation for a visit to Uganda, I asked our CEO, Julius, to get in touch with Naima and if possible arrange a meeting. “I am sorry to say that Naima is not well,” Julius responded. He went on to tell me that Naima had suffered a series of setbacks, which had left her in dire circumstances. First, her mother had fallen ill. To take care of her mother, Naima had left her business in the hands of one of her daughters, who was not up to the task of managing it, and had been forced to sell it to the landlord. Then Naima herself fell ill, with cancer. She entrusted her care to a fraudulent doctor, who took all her money.
“I have to see her,” I told Julius. “Can you arrange a meeting?”
I met with Naima at the Sheraton, Kampala Hotel, a venue that held many memories for me. It was there, back in the mid 80s, that, unable to afford to actually stay there, I used their telephone and tea room as a communications and meeting center, subscribing to the “fake it until you make it” philosophy. It worked, and today FINCA Uganda has over 55,000 clients and a loan book of $20 million. Also, it was in the Sheraton San Salvador, on the other side of the world, that my boss, Michael Hammer, was gunned down by a Death Squad in 1980.
As I listened to Naima relate her story, with the same quiet dignity as when we had met with Natalie, I kept thinking: “This can’t be. Our most successful client ever, not just in Uganda but the world, and it has all been erased. What a tragedy.”
Being the CEO of a global company has its drawbacks, but there are times when the advantages far outweigh the liabilities. I decided then and there to invoke “Executive Privilege”, and deviate far from our normal policy of treating every client the same, i.e., that our job was to provide financial services and not to take responsibility for whatever else was going on in their lives. No, Naima was different. Maybe we couldn’t solve every problem our clients faced, but as in that wonderful line from the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously”, when fate put someone in our path and we had the opportunity to help them, we had to do it.
After the meeting, I told Julius that we had to hire Naima, and that she needed to tell her story to our other 50,000 clients, most of whom were women in circumstances similar to hers when she joined FINCA, and to inspire them to do for their families what she had achieved with hers. At the time, I thought I was performing an act of charity, putting her on the payroll, and inventing a job for her.
How wrong I was. A few months later, a picture arrived with Naima, dressed in a gown she had made herself, celebrating her new role as our first Brand Ambassador. She went from village to village, telling all the women: “When you have problems, FINCA will never abandon you.” It was a powerful message. Our retention rate soared. Despite the highly competitive market in Uganda, our client list grew.
There are things I’ve done in my life I am ashamed of, but of all the things I am proud of I don’t think any can equal my decision to throw a lifeline to Naima in her hour of need, an act she repaid many times, and will, as long as my own struggle lasts, challenge me to live up to the impossibly high standard she has set for us.
I’m pleased to share with you a video from FINCA’s 30th anniversary event at Parliament.
On this momentous celebration, we welcomed all 23 CEOs from our programs in Latin America, Africa, Eurasia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
We were honored to have Laura Hemrika from Credit Suisse and Rachel Robbins, board member of FINCA FMH, deliver inspiring speeches to mark the occasion.
Also joining us were our sponsor, Credit Suisse, our partners from DFID, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, EBRD, FMO, Goldman Sachs, IFC, Symbiotics, and Triple Jump, and esteemed members of the press.
Thanks to all who made this an unforgettable evening!
It’s been a banner week for FINCA! On Tuesday night we celebrated FINCA’s 30th Anniversary at Parliament; gathering together all who bring their skills, expertise, and enthusiasm in support of our organization’s groundbreaking initiatives. FINCA’s Executive Leadership Team with all our subsidiary CEOs were joined by an unprecedented gathering of 150 social enterprise supporters and thought leaders.
Richard Kennedy, the Managing Director of FINCA UK, opened the event by highlighting how FINCA has demonstrated the ability to engage the donor and private sectors to fuel our growth. He also mentioned the growing partnerships which FINCA is developing in the UK with corporations, foundations and social investors to promote our shared social and economic goals.
Laura Hemrika of Credit Suisse described their six year strategic relationship with FINCA which involved the development of ground-breaking local currency bond funds in excess of $60 million, grants for training and development of agricultural products, and opportunities for CS employees to work shoulder-to-shoulder with FINCA subsidiary employees on various products in the field.
FMH board member Rachel Robbins talked about the role of the board in providing strategic guidance management in the development of future plans.
In my own remarks, I described the future strategy of FINCA, which involves the development of social enterprises in the non-financial sectors of healthcare, renewable energy, water and sanitation, education, and agriculture.
The next morning, we held a roundtable discussion at The Ivy Club with senior journalists representing the BBC, the Guardian, Bloomberg, Channel 4, Arise TV, The Economist, New African, the Times, the Independent, Ten Alps, Responsible Investor, and Xinhua News Agency. In addition to these esteemed members of the press, we were honored to have with us Lord Collins of Highbury, Shadow DFID Spokesperson, Michael Mercieca of Young Enterprise, Carolyn Clarke of PwC, Jonathan Tanner of Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, Amanda Mann and Laura Hemrika of Credit Suisse, and Rachel Robbins.
The full video blog will be online next week.
Congratulations and thanks to everyone who has been a part of FINCA’s remarkable journey!
Photographs taken by Garry Samuels of Get Shot Photography
Two somewhat contradictory articles on the Millennials and Entrepreneurship appeared recently, one by Scott Shane claiming that young people are less interested in starting their own businesses than were people of my generation (Boomers), and the other by Annika Small, suggesting that interest in self employment among this group is on the rise. To be fair, the articles quoted different studies that compared different population samples across different time frames – the classic “apples to oranges” quandary. But, clearly, interest in entrepreneurship among Millennials can’t be both increasing and abating, can it?
But wait: where the authors are in agreement is that if you add the word “social” to the mix (as in “social entrepreneur”), then there is an unambiguous trend among Millennials towards a desire to create a better world vs. fatten their bank accounts. Annika Small sees Millennials as “looking for radical solutions to social problems rather than creating a product or service that will make them a stash of cash.” Shane finds that “young people have broader goals life goals than their parents did when they were in school. Millennials may be less focused on being successful entrepreneurs because they think it is important to achieve other goals, like being good parents and citizens.”
It is, of course, possible both to improve society and make wads of money, as the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have done. The difference with Social Entrepreneurs is that we focus on curing some societal ill or injustice as the top priority. But like all entrepreneurs, we strive to do so in a financially sustainable way. Microfinance is probably the best example of a social enterprise that started out trying to put capital into the hands of the poorest micro entrepreneurs in developing countries so they could create their own businesses and bootstrap themselves out of poverty, and has grown into an industry that has transformed the global financial sector. Players in the microfinance industry today include commercial banks, payments companies, retailers, money transfer companies, telecoms as well as the pioneers like FINCA who started the revolution.
What excites me is to see more and more young people entering the Social Enterprise space, bringing their passion and new ideas for creating a more just world with less poverty. The kind of disruption that my generation created in the ‘60s, and which birthed microfinance, is seeing its echo in a whole new generation of social entrepreneurs.
Tomorrow we move FINCA out of 14th and L St, where we have resided for the past 17 years. (Well, my staff will, I’m here in London) Back in 1996, it was a hard sell for me to persuade our Board that being in Alexandria, Virginia, was not much better than our previous office in Tucson, Arizona, because, basically, no one from USAID, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank or our other funders every made the trip across the Potomac to visit us. But what really clinched the deal was, at the time, the rent was $14 per square foot, which was cheaper than what we were paying in Alexandria. The reason it was so cheap was that you really didn’t want to leave the office after dark. The neighborhood was quite sketchy in those days.
Today, that same space goes for over $50 per square foot, and the neighborhood has become more “respectable”, populated by high end hotels and eateries where the K Street Lobbyists go to sell our Democracy to the highest bidder.
But more dramatic than the rise in the cost of the rent is what happened to FINCA during those years. When we arrived, we had fewer than 100,000 clients in seven countries of Central and South America and the Carribean. Our loan portfolio was less than $10 million. Today we have over a million clients and close to $800 million in loans.
Many people passed through our doors during those years. We had great fun. Many are still with us. But many more are in the category of FINCA alumni, and when I run into them, as I often do, I try to remember to thank them for their contributions. For those of you who I forgot to do that, let me say it here: THANK YOU! You help to make us the great organization have become.
It was almost three years ago that, at the encouragement of my publicist at McGraw-Hill, I first ventured forth into the blogosphere. After a few weeks of wrestling with the technology, and with the help of me mate Filip Matous, a Canadian launching a social media start up in London, I started banging out what I called “Websayitos” (I hated the word blog, and thought a marriage of the Spanish for “small essay” sounded better) at the rate of several a week. I found that I really enjoyed this new medium, especially since I was in between writing projects, having just finished “The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build and Run a Business that Improves the World”, and in need of an outlet for the contents of my perpetually restless brain. I wrote about whatever I wanted, using my website some days as my own personal Op Ed column to weigh in on issues like gun control, Washington politics, etc. and at others times talking about microfinance and social entrepreneurship.
As I got involved in other writing projects, those and my day job at FINCA reduced my output to about one websayito a week. I’m told this is actually not a bad strategy as anything more tends to be perceived as crowding people’s inboxes.
Websites are like living rooms, and every so often you need to refurnish. At least this is what my wife tells me. So what do you think of the new look?